Recently I was having a meal in my home with a Muslim brother who often quotes the Bible to me and has a high honor for Jesus. I loved his openness to talk about Jesus, and wanted him to know that at least some of the differences between how Muslims and Christians talk about Jesus (not all) have their roots in historic and linguistic differences.
So I began to share about the phrase “son of God,” which is so difficult for Muslims to accept. The Qur’an clearly states that God cannot have a walad, or a biological offspring. Of course, all Christians would agree—Jesus’ sonship has nothing biological about it. So why did the Qur’an emphasize this point?
In the era of the Prophets of Israel, everyone was looking forward to the coming Messiah. He would be the “Anointed One,” the King who ushers in God’s Kingdom, the offspring of King David.
This concept of a King anointed by God to rule invoked a special relationship with God, which God chose to describe as a “Father-Son” relationship. In Psalm 89:20-27, we read that God called David his “firstborn,” and that David was to call God “Father.” This is even clearer in the case of Solomon, where God declares:
“I will be his a¯b (father), and he shall be my ben (son).”
Did you realize Jesus was not the first person to be called God’s son? But as Messiah, and rightful King, God spoke from the sky a similar pronouncement over Jesus in Luke 3:22:
“You are my ben (son), whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
So for a 1st century Jew, hearing a voice from heaven calling Jesus “the Son of God” would be understood as declaring him to be the Messiah (see also Matthew 16:16).
Now fast-forward to the 7th century and the birth of Islam. The Christian faith had spread throughout Greek and Roman culture, which both had religious traditions of major gods having sexual relations with other gods or with mankind to produce offspring, or minor gods—making the phrase “son of god” susceptible to more elastic interpretation. The Arabs themselves had centuries ago left the monotheism of Abraham and his son Ishmael and turned to worshiping a plurality of gods, which included male gods, female goddesses, and gods who were their offspring. There needed to be a clear call back to monotheism, to exalt God’s Oneness, and make it clear that He could have no offspring (no walad, as opposed to the slightly more flexible Arabic word for “son” which is ibn, and has been used symbolically–like ben–in other Arabic texts).
While Christians believe that Jesus did have a unique relationship with God as the “eternal Word of God made flesh,” (John 1:1-14) the term “son” should not be a dividing point between Muslims and Christians, but a point of agreement. Jesus was not a walad, a biological son—far be it from God to have biological offspring—but an anointed Messiah-King, the “Al-Masih” mentioned in the Qur’an.
For those who want to explore many other Muslim-Christian misunderstandings based on historical or linguistic differences, let me recommend these two sources:
1) short video lectures on “Jesus in the Qur’an” accompanied by excellent articles from reputable Christian and Muslim scholars who are finding common ground at http://equalaccess.org.au/index.php/resources/videos
So when someone asks you, “Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God?” take a moment to understand what the person is really asking. Don’t let the terms divide you, when in reality you may believe much the same thing!